The Kingdom of Heaven – Then and Now
As Advent and the beginning of the new liturgical year approach, the readings are replete with messages of apocalypse, end times, and the reign of God.
The central theme of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is the approaching Kingdom of Heaven. To enter the Kingdom we must be like children, we must leave everything behind, we must have faith even as small as that of a mustard seed. The reign of heaven, the dominion of heaven, the regime of heaven, are all ways of emphasizing the transformative nature of the rule of God on earth. Jesus before Pilate says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In His prayer teaching us to pray, Jesus says, “Your kingdom come – Your will be done on earth as it in heaven.”
The history of Christianity is replete with efforts to make society conform to Christian teachings in order to bring about a kingdom quite different from what Jesus announced. The movie, The Kingdom of Heaven, is a modern take on crusades and comes at a pivotal time in relations between Christians and Moslems. The movie is a contemporary fable about how we all should live together in peace and religious tolerance. Certainly it is a good message, but the movie defies history to make its point. The movie presents the major protagonists – Christian and Moslem – as moderate enlightened people who might have made a go of it if religious hotheads on both sides had not inflamed the situation. The truth is that the protagonists were – like people of their time – religious. There would be no real motivation for the crusaders to leave Europe without their religious conviction. Nor would the Moslems have allowed the Christians to ransom themselves when Jerusalem was under seige if they hadn’t believed that the Christians would follow through on their threat to destroy The Dome of the Rock and other Islamic holy places. Of course, the conflict was not entirely about religion. There were issues of political and economic power. Yet, ultimately, both sides declared that it was God’s will.
While it might be fashionable to condemn the Christian response to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, it obscures the fact that freedom of religion and religious tolerance were radical 18th century concepts. Benjamin Franklin and other key leaders of the American Revolution were not “Christians” as we understand the term. They were deists and Freemasons who saw religion as an impediment to social reform and progress. For the deist, God created a clockwork universe, set it in motion, and had nothing more to do with it. Jesus was a good teacher of morality and only that. The state should not establish or endorse a religion to the exclusion of others. While this approach provided a fertile ground for faith in the new republic, its implementation in the French Revolution led to wholesale slaughter and the destruction of France’s religious culture.
Even now, we struggle with the concept of religious freedom. There is a fear that tolerance leads to cultural and religious relativism. One is as good as another. Christians believe that the full revelation of God is in Christ Jesus. Moslems believe that Muhammed is the Seal of the Prophets. Many Christians believe that law and social policy should reflect Christian moral norms. With the legalization of divorce, birth control, and homosexuality, the current hold out positions are abortion and fetal stem cell research. Other Christians emphasize the social gospel and the need to inform the human conscience while leaving it free.
So what happened to the Kingdom of Heaven in all of this permissiveness and relativism? The challenge remains. Radical compassion is not compatible with the power politics of the state or our need to control others. There will always be this struggle between the Kingdom which is already here and the Kingdom to come, which we would rather put off indefinitely.
“When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8